Larry L. King Theatre at Austin Playhouse, through May 10
Running time: 2 hr, 15 min
For the pillars of the women's suffrage movement, Victorian England is ripe for revolution. There are a half-million more ladies than gents in that fair country, opening up occupational and financial opportunities for the graduates of Mary Barfoot's school. And to prove just how far women have come, the school opens its doors to the destitute Madden sisters: Monica, a coldhearted nymphomaniac; Virginia, a lush; and Alice, a 40-year-old virgin. Suffice to say they are not going to make the dean's list anytime soon.
But how does the wheat pull the chaff up to its enlightened heights? How does the enlightened woman make peace with her base physical instincts? These questions are at the heart of Age of Arousal. In it, Mary and Rhoda play the master and apprentice of the suffrage movement as well as lovers. But when Mary's relative, Everard, falls in love with Rhoda, the apprentice must chose between love and liberation, because the two cannot be intermingled.
Arousal doesn't shirk from its subject matter's ideals, but it doesn't drown in them either. It approaches the lofty heights of something like Caryl Churchill's Top Girls but without getting lost in headiness – everything is about the women's suffrage movement, and yet it's tempered with bags of action, wit, and absurdity. A passionate struggle between two conflicted lovers, full of legitimate concerns over the ideals that they're giving up for love, is cut with "I've got a boner so hard it's going to burn through my trousers."
Ridiculous? Definitely. Irreverent? Surprisingly not, given some of its absurdly written characters. By showing the extremities of a situation, the problem becomes more galvanizing to the audience. It reminded me of a friend's advice that a good way to play a Shakespearean soliloquy of decision is to show how appealing each option is (i.e., Hamlet really wants to be and really wants not to be). Arousal's characters are both positively and negatively affected by their desire to be independent women as well as their desire to be just women.
Playwright Linda Griffiths pushes this inner turmoil to the surface of the play. Her characters speak in a multitude of midscene asides, the expressions of personal fears and desires somehow akin to midscene soliloquies. It might sound like a stilted device, but in performance, the technique brings audiences closer to the tormented characters (and is pretty damn funny), like a combination of Beatrice and Benedick with the internal questioning of Annie Hall.
Arousal's characters are painted with broad, dynamic strokes, their fiery personalities sown into every word they speak. It's a testament to Lara Toner, who directs Austin Playhouse's production, that she not only handled these characters but let them flourish in her fine actors. The energy pops, voices boom, actions are swift. It's not rare to see talented actors in our city, but it's rare to see such talented actors work so hard.
In Arousal, an assertion is made that a strong difference exists between intelligent unhappiness and unintelligent unhappiness. In looking for a lover, the former cries out for both sides of a human being – the side that looks past gender, as well as the side that wants the docile female or dominant man. It is perhaps an impossible expectation. Age of Arousal does a far better balancing act than its characters, blending absurdity and drama, serious figures with madhouse loons, the ideals and the instincts in a way that still speaks to our sensibilities.
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